Hiking Tour of the Canadian Rockies
Why would I, a hardcore introvert who doesn’t like to be told what to do, choose to go on a hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies with two guides and 10 strangers?
As a result of 22 years in the suburbs and a decade smack in the middle of the city, I have a pretty serious case Nature Deficit Disorder and have a hardcore craving for trees. I had seen enough photos of the Canadian Rockies to know it is one of the most breathtaking places on the planet. Both Banff and a hiking adventure were on my Wander List, the former for years and the latter ever since my maiden backpacking adventure. Of course, the wannabe photographer in me is always excited.
Besides forests full of trees, the Rockies also have lakes and rivers that rival the waters of Belize and Bali, ancient glaciers, waterfalls, alpine meadows, dramatic mountains, and the potential to see some exciting wildlife. Bear and moose were at the top of my list.
I chose to go on a tour for three reasons:
- I didn’t want to get eaten by a grizzly while treating my nature deficit disorder
- I wanted to test the tour waters to see if they are a viable option for future solo wanders
- I intended to discover the extent of capabilities and test the boundaries of my limitations
Thanks to Grand American Adventures, two awesome guides, and the Canadian Rockies, I nailed all three points!
Canadian Rockies and Wilderness Walk
Once I decided hat my next solo wander would be hiking in the Canadian Rockies, I started Googling for the people to take me there. My primary criteria were a small group size, a long trip, and a loaded itinerary.
I chose the Canadian Rockies and Wilderness Walk by Grand American Adventures because 13 nature-filled days sounded Heavenly, the price was right, the group was capped at 12 hikers (and most would likely come from the UK), and the few reviews I found were positive.
In July 2017, the price for this 13 day tour hiking in the Canadian Rockies was $2,625 US.
This included one night in a hotel, 12 nights in a shared tent, 11 breakfasts, 11 lunches, and 10 dinners. The only additional out-of-pocket expenses were a couple of restaurant meals; laundry, treats (ice cream, coffee, an ice cold beer, gin and tonics, etc.), souvenirs, and extra activities were totally optional.
- (1) night in the Ramada Plaza Hotel in downtown Calgary
- (11) nights camping in public and private campgrounds
- Two drives on the Icefields Parkway with stops at a couple glaciers
- A guided tour at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The Date & The Weather
The factors impacting my choice of dates (in order of importance) to go hiking in the Canadian Rockies were:
- My guy’s (August) birthday
- Our four year (July) anniversary
- The weather
I had to sacrifice one of these—I opted to make the birthday and miss the anniversary in favor of the warmest weather. July 16-28 it was.
The weather was nearly perfect (for me). For the first 10 days in Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks, the nights were COLD (seriously), mornings and evenings were CHILLY, and the days ranged from cool to warm. Anyone who didn’t have a down sleeping bag was not happy and spent their shopping time in the local mountain shop.
In the Waterton Lakes area, the weather took a 180—from chilly to HOT. I don’t do good hiking in hot, so this was a bit of a struggle for me.
It truly was a big deal for me to volunteer to join a group without an escape route. Give me one or two people and I can generally shine—put me in a group and I flicker at best. Grand American Adventures’ Canadian Rockies and Wilderness Walk was only an option because it was capped at 14 people (two of those being guides).
Being run by a UK company, odds were that most of the 12 would be from the UK or Ireland. The odds played out as expected with the final country count at:
- (5) British
- (4) Irish
- (1) Australian
- (2) Canadians (the guides; one from Quebec and the other from near Vancouver)
- (1) token American (me)
I’ll just say it—in general, I prefer hanging out with Europeans over Americans. Why? Because they tend to come with fewer entitlements and far more manners, so I was thrilled with the headcount.
The food had me equally apprehensive. Me and processed food, especially freeze dried camping food, tend part ways…literally. One of my most vivid memories from my first backpacking trip was a mid-night purge of excessive flavor enhancers, the main ingredient in foods made to maximize convenience and profit and minimize weight.
The tour organizers were stumped by my answer to the food sensitivity question. Never heard of that one lol. I tried to explain the concept of single ingredient foods and they told they would do their best to accommodate me. I was encouraged to bring my own snacks, which I nailed (see below).
My fears were totally allayed after the very first meal. I scored myself a vegetarian guide who was an amazing cook! Every single one of my 11 breakfasts, 11 lunches, and 10 dinners were MSG-free and included delicious entrees like Grandma’s oatmeal, Greek Quinoa Salad, several salad wraps, and Beet & Chickpea Salad.
13 Day Hiking Tour of the Canadian Rockies
It didn’t take long for us to settle into an efficient daily routine. We were notified of our morning call time the previous day. Meal prep and cleanup were shared duties—if you did one, you were excused from the other.
Here’s how a typical day went down:
- Too Early—Breakfast/lunch prep
- 7:00-8:30 a.m.—Breakfast
- 7:30-9:00 a.m.—Breakfast cleanup
- 8:00-9:30 a.m.—Drive to hike
- 10:00-11:00 a.m.—Begin hiking/sightseeing
- 12:00-1:30 p.m.—Picnic lunch (usually on the trail)
- 4:30-6:00 p.m.—Return to camp
- 5:30-6:30 p.m.—Happy Hour & dinner/lunch prep
- 6:00-7:00 p.m.—Dinner
- 7:00-8:30 p.m.—Dinner cleanup
- 8:30-10:00 p.m.—Bed time
Day 1—Arrival in Calgary
I’ve been on enough cruises to know that arriving one day before a group departure prevents a lot of stress and ensures you don’t miss any pre-trip meetings. So that was my plan and I stuck to it. My cheap flight (San Diego > Calgary for $345) was glitchless, partly because United was on their best behavior.
It would have been slightly easier to Uber from the airport to downtown Calgary, but I’m too cheap—the $15 shuttle that would drop me off at a hotel two blocks from my destination was more palatable than a $45 private car that would put me at the front door. No regrets at all. It also would have been easier to stay at the Ramada Plaza, where I’d be sleeping the next night, but I just couldn’t bring myself to stay any longer than I needed to in the sad and outdated building that I saw on my computer screen so I booked a cool place to stay nearby through Airbnb.
It’s always challenging booking somewhere to stay when you have no clue about the neighborhood, but many wanders have given me a pretty keen sense of place. My room was in a high-rise apartment building on 13 SW. The neighborhood was safe, walkable, and had plenty of restaurants and craft breweries within walking distance. My host was a grad student who steered me in the right direction this evening and the next day.
Soon after settling in, I went in search of local craft beer. Got lost in a garden on the way…
The jam packed and well-rated Trolley 5 Brewing was about three blocks away. I grabbed the last seat at the bar and took the bartender’s advice and ordered the First Crush White IPA. Go figure—I had to come all the way to Canada to find an IPA that I legitimately liked! (What is with me and long distance relationships???) My confusion about the western attire of most of the people in my sights cleared up by my roomie—turns out tomorrow is the last day of one of the world’s biggest rodeos.
Day 2—Calgary Stampede
The Calgary Stampede is a 10 day event held every July that’s part county fair—with a parade, stage shows, concerts, agricultural competitions, and carnival attractions—and part rodeo. Billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” it brings more than a million visitors to the city every year.
The very first one was held in 1886, in the hopes of attracting East Coasters to the Wild West, but it didn’t become an annual event until 1923. Today, it’s a part of Calgary’s identity and turns the city into a festive cowtown every summer.
It was an easy walk from my Airbnb to Stampede Park, which is in the Beltline District of southeast downtown Calgary. Not having done any research, I didn’t have a plan so I was pretty much like a pinball in a pinball machine. I went to a Bollywood dance show that was just starting as I walked by the theater. From there, I wandered into a barn smack into the North American Sheep Shearing Challenge (who knew???). Two sheep later, I decided to hang out with the rest of the animals. The rest of what I saw (and ate) was just like the San Diego County Fair, which I burned out on long ago, so it wasn’t long before I walked to the Ramada in time for the first event of the tour. (It’s always better to do some research. I should have gone to the rodeo, the chuckwagon races, and the “Indian Village,” where the five first nation tribes re-enact elements of their traditional lifestyle.)
Click to watch Calgary Stampede 2017 Slideshow
Five Brits, one Irish, one Aussie, and one American m(me!) met two Canadian guides in the Ramada lobby for our first group activity—dinner at Craft Beer Market. (Two more Irish and one more Brit were arriving later that night.) Not long after ordering another yummy beer—What the Huck Huckleberry Wheat Ale by Fernie Brewing Company—good karma struck (although I didn’t come to realize how good it really was until Day 4)—I scored my own tent for no additional cost (a $214 value)! I was naive enough at this moment to feel a tiny pang of regret—would I miss out on bonding with a new bestie??? (The answer to this is a resounding NO. This was not only a precious gift and a bargain, but a necessity that I would never again leave to chance should I ever wander with a group again!)
Day 3—Castle Mountain Lookout Trail & Lake Louise (Banff National Park)
Today is the day we start hiking in the Canadian Rockies!!!
After an overpriced breakfast in the hotel diner, we lugged all of our stuff out to the sidewalk. While I’m usually a light packer, it’s possible that I had the most stuff. I blame it on the extra sleeping pad I decided my 50 year old self deserved—an excellent, arguably my best, decision.
Here’s what was on the itinerary for Day 2 of the Canadian Rockies and Wilderness Walk tour:
Drive the Trans-Canada Highway to your first destination, Lake Louise, your base for the next three nights. Take in the epic panorama at the prestigious Chateau Lake Louise and warm up those hiking boots with a walk on the trail beside the emerald coloured lake for views of Victoria Glacier. Leaving the tourists behind, hike through old-growth forest before reaching spectacular views of Lake Louise from above and then continue along the trail until you reach Lake Agnes and a rustic teahouse, providing much needed refreshment before the decent back down to your campsite near Lake Louise.
That wasn’t quite what happened.
We arrived at Lake Louise Campground about two hours after pulling away from the Ramada curb. This is a public campground in Banff National Park about 1 km from Lake Louise Village, 4 kms from Lake Louise, and 60 kms northwest of the town of Banff.
It was pure fantasy that had me expecting wilderness camping on my hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies. It was not to be. (However, the bears didn’t get the memo.) It was definitely NOT glamping either (which was a GOOD thing).
As we searched for our block of campsites, we ran smack into a black bear…sort of. He was just outside of the electric fence surrounding the campground and couldn’t have cared less that we were there. His/her snack had their full attention.
After unloading, we had tent class and unpacked. Our first lunch was charcuterie with several cheeses, meats, fruit and bread. (You already know what awesome news this was for me.) After lunch, I discovered one of the benefits of camping with Brits—afternoon (non-Lipton) tea!
Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park and is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage site. Typically, over three million visitors a year come to the park to explore, camp, hike, bike, and ski—this year there were much more. I missed the memo that admission to all national parks was free this year in celebration of Canada’s birthday. While I appreciate the gesture, this was a total bummer as it definitely put a damper on my escape into nature.
It also meant that we had to stray from the trip itinerary because the Lake Louise parking lot was full during the first half of the day. Instead of the Lake Louise hike, the guides opted for a relatively gentle hike on Castle Mountain Lookout Trail.
This hike took us through a small forest to a viewpoint overlooking the Bow Valley. While the wildflowers did not disappoint, the massive wildfires that were raging throughout western Canada obscured the views and what we could see was tainted by construction work near the highway. While it was far from a bad hike, I was a little nervous that my expectations might have been too lofty.
Click to watch Castle Mountain Trail Slideshow
After the hike, we stopped at Lake Louise. Despite being blanketed in smoke as a result of massive wildfires, it was still breathtaking. There really are no words—and the pictures (especially mine) do NOT do it justice. This should be on everyone’s Wander List!
Click to watch Lake Louise Slideshow
After a pitstop in Lake Louise Village on the way back to the campground, we devoured a dinner of salad, chicken masala and naan.
Day 4—Moraine Lake & Eiffel Lake Trail (Banff National Park)
Here’s the official itinerary for t0day, which we followed to a T:
Take a short transfer to Moraine Lake, neighbour to Lake Louise and situated in the scenic Valley of the Ten Peaks. Hike along the Larch Valley before climbing to Sentinel Pass for magnificent views of Banff National Park backcountry. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife including elk, porcupine and bear, which are often sighted on the trail. From here you can either hike back or start your descent along the Paradise Valley to end this loop trail. This is one of Banff’s premier hiking trails, so do except to see a few fellow hikers on the trail too.
But, first a HEALTHY breakfast—plain yogurt (YES!), muesli (YES!), and fresh fruit (YES!).
Yesterday, while gaping at Lake Louise, I would not have believed it if you would have told me I’d be more blown away tomorrow. Let me introduce you to a serious contender for The Most Beautiful Spot on Earth—MORAINE LAKE. I had many a fantasy here—like making people temporarily disappear and paddle boarding in solitude, canoeing with one or more of my loved ones, and being a pro photographer who had equipment and knew how to use it.
Click to watch Moraine Lake Slideshow
Good God this hike was a WINNER!!! THIS is why I wanted to come hiking in the Canadian Rockies so bad. Shortly after we started, we had our second major animal sighting—a curious young male mule deer who surprised our guides by following us like a puppy dog.
It didn’t take me long to learn that the optimal place for me was the second to last in line, just in front of the rear guide—not because I wasn’t in shape, but because it allowed me to get the occasional, albeit rushed, photograph. (This became downright torturous at times) I was an obsessed (and frustrated) photographer. On this particular hike, this position afforded me a little education on bears that will serve me well when I come back here.
Forget the bear bells—in fact, our guide called them dinner bells. A more effective noise is an organic noise, like a consistent stream of “Hey Bears!” or loud music blaring out of Beats Pill. It’s a good idea to have an air horn within easy reach, as well as a handy little contraption that explodes a rifle bullet.
The trail took us through a gorgeous rainforest and tiny colorful meadows, across rocky landslides and lingering snow patches, and alongside snow capped mountains, glaciers, and bright blue mountain lakes. Our lunch spot allowed us to savor both the views and our Greek quinoa salad.
Click to watch Eiffel Lake Slideshow
One of the perks of hiking every day for nearly two weeks are almost guilt-free desserts BEFORE dinner. Today’s was a giant scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream from the throwback parlor in Lake Louise Village. Back at the campground, we had another fabulous dinner of salad and salmon burgers.
Day 5—Twin Falls Trail (Yoho National Park)
Today’s breakfast was healthy and hearty—eggs, toast, onions caramelized in maple syrup (OMG), and fresh fruit. The perfect fuel for today’s long hike.
I’m thankful we followed the day’s itinerary exactly as it was written:
Cross the Continental Divide north along the Kicking Horse River towards Yoho National Park. Yoho, meaning ‘magnificent’ in the Cree Indian language is home to some beautiful alpine scenery, which is best explored on foot. Your trail today delivers striking views of Takakkaw Falls, Daly Glacier and Yoho River. Overshadowed by the neighbouring parks of Banff and Jasper, Yoho National Park is the hidden treasure of the Canadian National Parks System. It’s a photographer’s dream with several hiking opportunities delivering pristine alpine landscapes including stunning mountains, lakes and waterfalls. You’re bound to be impressed by its unsurpassed beauty.
Why have I never heard of Yoho National Park??? The name comes from a Cree (First Nation) expression meaning “awe and wonder.” The official park all started because of food.
The Canadian Pacific Railway built a luxury hotel and restaurant at the base of Mount Stephen to avoid hauling heavy dining cars up the mountain. This evolved into Mount Stephen reserve, which was renamed Yoho National Park in 1901. The park is home to 28 peaks above 3,000 meters, numerous waterfalls, and world famous fossil beds.
If someone pinned me down and forced me to choose my favorite hike, it would be this one. So many different sights, a lush and jampacked forest, and an aqua blue river. It was legitimately challenging to blow by it all without thoroughly soaking it up. I survived by plotting a return trip before I ever left the trail.
Click to watch Twin Falls Trail Slideshow
Today I learned something—just like some other things, size doesn’t matter when it comes to waterfalls. It’s ALL about the technique.
I am no longer naive about the British love of gin and tonics. They have become determined to end every day with them in hand, so we made another pit stop at Lake Louise Village to pick up the missing ingredients. Dinner tonight hit the spot—green salad and rice pasta with tomato sauce, brie cheese, fresh basil and green onions.
Day 6—Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake & Parker Ridge Trail (Banff & Jasper National Parks)
After a warm breakfast of Grandma’s apple and cinnamon oatmeal (with maple syrup, of course) and hot tea, we packed up camp and drove to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway.
Today was another true-to-the-itinerary day:
Enjoy the views of one of the world’s finest drives; the Icefields Parkway featuring ‘must see’ sights, including Bow Summit, Bow and Peyto Lakes as well as the Crowfoot Glacier. Thankfully there are plenty of well-located pause points and you’ll find the frozen swathes of the Colombia Icefield Parkway and the thundering cascades of Sunwapta Falls provide two of many incredible backdrops on offer. There may be time for a walk at Parker Ridge and the chance to see Saskatchewan Glacier. Once you arrive in Jasper, keep your eyes peeled as wildlife such as Black Bear and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are abundance. Tonight you’ll set up camp underneath the watchful gaze of Jasper’s rugged peaks, your home for the next three nights.
The Icefields Parkway is one of Canada’s national treasures and made our driving day far more than bearable. It stretches a total of 144 miles (232 km) through two national parks (Banff and Jasper), the Columbia Icefield, and into the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Being a California lifer, I had no clue what an icefield was. I do now. The Columbia Icefield is the most expansive accessible area of interconnected valley glaciers in the North American Rocky Mountains—125 square miles (325 square kilometers), to be precise. It’s located on the Continental Divide along the border of British Columbia and Alberta, in both Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Our first stop was Bow Lake and the historical Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, which was opened by a former Englishman named Jimmy Simpson who became an eccentric and legendary outfitter guiding people through the wild Canadian Rockies. I did a little yoga on the shores with one of the guides and wandered around a bit pining for the solitude of nature.
Our guides’ (brilliant) plan to stun us at our second stop made it one of the most unforgettable experiences of the entire trip. We were told to close our eyes (or else) as they led our human chain from the van to the mystery spot. The shock of seeing Peyto (PEE-tō) Lake and Glacier had us all in awe in unison.
Named after Bill Peyto, one of the first trail guides and trappers in the Banff area, Peyto Lake is glacier fed and as vibrant as the turquoise waters of Caye Caulker (Belize) thanks to “rock flour” that’s a byproduct of glacial rock.
Click to watch Peyto Lake & Glacier Slideshow
Our third stop was a short hike to Parker Ridge.
Although I’ve never been to Switzerland, I imagined it would look a lot like the scenery on the Parker Ridge Trail. (Some in the group actually did start singing Do Re Mi.) This was definitely a beaten path (with the token disrespectful tourist), but the payoff at the top made it worth the minor irritation—the view of Saskatchewan Glacier is totally unobstructed and completely stunning.
Click to watch Parker Ridge Trail Slideshow
Our fourth stop was Athabasca Falls. Wow—just wow. The power here is mind boggling. This was a moment where time travel would come in awfully handy. The thought of being here before the crowds arrived was tantalizing. Nowadays you have to put your patient pants on before getting out of your vehicle—you’ll have to wait to see it and you’ll be challenged to photograph it well.
Click to watch Athabasca Falls Slideshow
We made a quick (gin and tonic) stop in Jasper before landing in our next campground—Whistlers Campground—just outside of town. I put my tent up like a pro, ate another delicious dinner, and crashed.
Day 7—Cavell Meadows Trail (Jasper National Park)
This morning’s hiking fuel was French toast and fresh fruit—delicious as usual. Today’s itinerary, which we faithfully followed, was:
Jasper is much quieter than some other national parks, making it easier to leave the crowds behind. Take the trail to Cavell Meadows at the foot of Angel Glacier for a true wilderness feel. After climbing up, you reach the alpine terrain with great chance to watch caribous! This is a great way to find out more about the ever-changing environment of this stunning national park. For a more relaxing time in wildlands of Jasper, head down to the lakeshore of Maligne Lake and admire the Spirit Island one of the most photographed scenes on the planet.
This was another Sound of Music trail with a wide variety of landscapes—including a rodent-packed boulder field, flower-filled meadows, alpine forest, phallic glacier, and rocky mountaintop. The trail had just reopened after being closed due to a sighting of a mama grizzly and her cubs.
Had I been by myself, I would have spent WAY more time soaking up the forest and meadows and watching the marmots and pikas and skipped hiking to the stark mountaintop. I see quite enough dirt and rocks back home, which has me starving for trees and wildflowers.
Click to watch Cavell Meadows Trail Slideshow
On the way back to Jasper, we had the opportunity to ponder the question, “Why did the bear cross the road?”. The conclusion was most likely to get the munchies on the other side.
Today was laundry day in town. I brought enough clothes to skip this step, so I shopped and sipped (a maple caramel mocha) instead. Dinner was at the innovative (and pricey) Downstream Lounge, where I had no problem eating an entire $38.00CA elk steak dinner all by myself.
Surprisingly, the town of Jasper was a bit of a disappointment—way too many hyper-touristy shops and personality-less eateries, far too few art or books, a ginormous amount of untapped potential.
Day 8—Maligne Lake & Bald Hills Trail
A hearty breakfast of sausage, scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, and fresh fruit—and a campground elk sighting—had me energized for today’s challenging hike.
Today, we stuck to the planned itinerary:
Today we explore another section of the park: Maligne Canyon and the spiky Bald Hills. Walk along Maligne Canyon with several bridges and waterfalls. Continue along Maligne Lake Road, keep your eyes open for Bald Eagles and Black Bear. From the lake, hike to the top of Bald Hill Mountain for an open view of Maligne Lake and the surrounding peaks.
After a quick stop at Medicine Lake and a nearby eagle’s near his nest, we headed to Maligne Lake and the Bald Hills trailhead.
Oh, how quickly one can become a spoiled brat. After the spectacular hikes we’ve been on in the past several days, this one was a bit of a disappointment to me. Hiking on a steep dirt mosquito-plagued fire road to look at a lake that wasn’t nearly blue enough just didn’t do it for me.
Click to watch Bald Hills Trail Slideshow
The highlight of my day was a hot shower back at Whistler Campground. It didn’t even faze me that you had to push a button to restart it every few minutes. A paneer and tofu curry dinner topped me off and had me more than ready to hunker down in my sleeping bag.
Day 9—Icefield Parkway & Town of Banff
This morning’s breakfast was quick—yogurt, muesli, and fresh fruit—to compensate for the time it was going to take to break down camp. Today we would return to the Icefield Parkway en route to the town of Banff, making several stops along the way.
The day wasn’t nearly as eventful as the itinerary sounded, but it was pleasant.
Return to Banff for a two night stay, and explore more of the thrilling hiking trails by foot, stopping along the Icefield Parkway on your way to discover yet more superb sights and viewpoints. Visit the Banff area, relax on Banff Upper Hot Springs or rent a canoe and paddle along the Bow River for a little watery adventure.
Today’s stops included:
- Stutfield Glacier—a massive 3,000 foot (914 meter) glacier that formed a pair of icefalls.
- Tangle Falls—a tiny roadside waterfall.
- Athabasca Glacier—a whopping 3.7 miles long (6 km), this is one of six main glaciers in the Columbia Icefield and one of the most visited in North America. You can walk to the glacier from the parking lot. Along the way, you can see evidence of global warming in the form of signs that indicate where the edge of the glacier was in specific years; it has lost HALF of its volume in the last 125 years. (Make sure you stay on the path—and hold your kids’ hands—lest you or they fall into a hidden crevasse. Yes, it really has happened.)
- Num-Ti-Jha Lodge at Bow Lake—a return visit for a quick cup of hot coffee.Herbert Lake—a picnic lunch by a pretty little lake.
One of my fellow hikers and I gently transitioned into the town of Banff on the Bow Falls River Walk trail.
Our initial plan was to spend some time in the First Nation Museum, but we both weren’t in museum mode so we headed to town for some shopping and hot tea. The town was packed with tourists, which was a bit jolting to my system after being on relatively quiet trails for the past week, but it’s charm won me over enough to enjoy our short time here. A little souvenir shopping, a cup of tea, and conversation made the time go quickly.
Click to watch Icefield Parkway & Bow Falls Slideshow
Our new home was Tunnel Mountain Campground, home of too few showers with too cold water. No shower for me!
After a salad and burger dinner, I tried to share the joy of pickle shots (one shot whiskey + one shot pickle brine) with the group, but the British and Irish would have none of it or the game of Two Truths One Lie (or Two Lies One Truth?) the guide and I tried to drum up. So off to bed we went.
Day 10—Burstall Pass Trail (Peter Lougheed Provincial Park)
We followed today’s itinerary to the letter:
This incredibly stunning area of Canada is home to over 50 provincial parks and recreation areas, just waiting for you to explore. Hike to Burstall Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and pass through thick forest before arriving at a beautiful hanging valley. A final push over the last bluff reveals unbelievable views in all directions including the horn of Mount Assiniboine.
The Burstall Pass hike is in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (formerly Kananaskis Provincial Park), which encompasses 117 square miles (304 square kilometers).
The hike starts on a road, then quickly cuts through a lush forest. I longed to linger here, but onward we went until we arrived at a waterlogged alpine meadow making for some extra interesting hiking. It wasn’t long before we were heading up the mountain. Once on top, we ate our lunches while soaking up stunning 360 degree views, including of the horn of Mount Assiniboine.
Although the park is home to grizzly and black bears, elk and deer, moose and bighorn sheep, cougars and lynx, wolves and mountain goats, the only wildlife we saw on the trail was one ground squirrel and a mystery rodent. Today’s wildlife—three big horn sheep and three elk—was viewed from the car.
Shortly before arriving back at the campground, I ran out of social gas. Being 50, I had no problem making the controversial decision to skip the semi-obligitory group outing to the local bowling alley in favor of a quiet evening snuggling in my sleeping bag—reading, writing, and sleeping at (my own) will. Instead of fried bowling alley food, I had my AMAZING grass fed beef sticks, Oloves, and oatmeal fruit squeeze for dinner. I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sounds that exists—raindrops falling on a waterproof tent.
Click to watch Burstall Pass Trail Slideshow
Day 11—Ptarmigan Cirque Trail (Peter Lougheed Provincial Park)
Here’s what the itinerary said:
Over the summit of Highwood Pass you’ll cross into cowboy country continuing to Waterton Lakes National Park, known locally as ‘the land where the prairie meets the mountains’. Waterton Lakes delivers red canyons, deep blue lakes, caves and coves formerly used by whisky smugglers. Wildlife is plentiful here and there are some incredible guided hikes on offer, which will allow ample opportunity to view native wildlife in its natural habitat. Hike to Bertha Falls and then walk further along the trail to Bertha Lakes. This is a moderate hike but the views are superb and your camera will definitely get a work out on this trail. Tonight you set up camp for three nights near Waterton Lakes National Park.
Here’s what we actually did:
This morning after a quick and healthy muesli breakfast, we broke down camp and headed toward Waterton Springs. We stopped off for the Ptarmigan Cirque hike on the way.
It’s official—I’ve been thoroughly spoiled. This hike, which was different than the one noted on the itinerary, was just okay for me. Living and hiking in primarily desert terrain, I crave the lushness of the forest and this trail was mostly rocky. That being said, a so-so hikes in the Canadian Rockies is FAR superior than the best hike in San Diego, so I was far from disgruntled!
After the hike, we stopped off in Longview for some beef jerky. Longview Beef Jerky has a HUGE selection of jerky. At first, I wondered where I was going to put 10 bags of jerky. Then, I read the ingredient list—corn syrup and potential flavor enhancers. One bag of basic jerky it was.
Our home for the next three nights was the private Waterton Springs Campground. An interesting feature of this campground are the saskatoon berry bushes (AKA bear food) that encircle many of the campsites bringing bears on a regular basis. The second most interesting feature were the pay showers—$1.00 buys you 10 minutes in a hot shower. The only limit was your budget. Despite having the most tent space at this campground, we huddled close to each other in case of bears.
Word had it that a resident moose took an evening stroll just over the hill from our campsites, so after a sweet potato and lentil dinner, several of us went in the hopes of checking off an item from our bucket list. The moose didn’t get the memo.
Click to watch Ptarmigan Cirque Trail Slideshow
Day 12—Lineham Ridge Trail (Waterton Lakes National Park)
Today we stuck with the itinerary:
Lineham Ridge Hike is a thing of beauty from the start. Admire the brilliant red argillite of Rowe Creek and keep a close eye out for Grizzly Bear who could pop out of the forest at any moment. This is a superb trail that provides some of the best views around, to the south you can even see the equally stunning Glacier National Park.
After another healthy muesli breakfast, we set off for the toughest hike of the entire trip.
Like life, hiking is all about timing. Had this particular hike happened several days earlier, it might’ve gotten five stars outta me. But, by Day 12, both my patience and my energy were significantly depleted. I was frustrated and befuddled—we were blowing by the coolest flowers ever, a river that begged to be sat by, and a meadow that was made for exploring, yet everybody, but me and one fellow hiker, seemed absolutely driven to get to the tip top of the barren mountain.
An added challenge for me was the temperature—the toughest hike happened on the hottest day of the entire trip. The combination of challenges proved to be too much for me—about two-thirds through the hike, I had a pounding sinus headache and a shitty attitude.
Had I known before and during the hike what I know now, I would have asked the guides to split the group, which was definitely mentioned in the trip dossier as a possible option if needed, for the benefit of the hiker who reluctantly opted out of the hike due to health concerns, myself, and one other pooped out tour mate.
Click to watch Lineham Ridge Trail Slideshow
A nap, grilled steak, and Irish mashed potatoes made by a real Irishman made everything (almost) all better.
Day 13—Bear’s Hump Trail
The trip itinerary had us doing this:
The next trail on offer is the Carthew-Alderson Trail, which will take you through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Canadian Rockies. Walk through misty old forests and pass deep blue lakes and rugged mountain peaks. Visit the Buffalo Refuge before heading back to your campground for the evening.
The good news is that our guides suggested something even better—the 22 km Crypt Lake Trail, billed as one of the best hikes in the WORLD. The bad news is I had serious doubts about my body and attitude making it the entire 22 kilometers, so I begrudgingly opted out. I was tortured, to say the least—and disappointed that I didn’t know about today’s hike before I went on yesterday’s hike. Given the choice between the two, I would have chosen Crypt Lake for sure.
Fortunately, the consolation prize was no bummer—I got to spend the day with Guide Marie (my local source for deep conversations) and one of my favorite fellow hikers. After a warm oatmeal breakfast, the three of us drove into Waterton and Marie and I hiked a short, but tough, little trail in town.
After some delicious meaningful chat time by Waterton Lake, we did some end-of-trip deep cleaning back at camp in preparation for our return to Calgary. Any question I had about skipping this hike was gone when the group’s estimated return time came and went. A couple of hours after we expected them, they arrived with pizza and ice cream in hand. Average pizza and cheap ice cream never tasted so good.
Day 14—Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump & Calgary
Before and after breakfast, we did our last camp breakdown and started heading for “home” (AKA the Ramada). Because it was our last day, there was no option but to stick with the itinerary:
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of ‘Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump’, one of the world’s oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jumps. Here you’ll find a museum dedicated to the First Nations People, before making a beeline for Calgary where your tour ends.
Group energy was low when we arrived at UNESCO’s Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump Museum, but our native tour guide managed to revive it a bit. This is one of the oldest, largest, and most well preserved sites where a First Nation tribe—in this case, the Blackfoot—communally hunted buffalo. Our Blackfoot guide led us to an overlook right next to the actual precipice where the animals would plunge to their deaths. The result was a massive pile of dead animals that the natives used to survive the winter. Being American, I was the only one in the group who totally related. I was definitely the the most emotional. By the time we left, I was totally spent.
After brief stops at a Calgary fort and a city viewpoint, we were plunked back into the city—and warmly welcomed by the most inebriated vagrant I have ever come across to date. Nothing like being jolted back to reality. I was so glad to be staying my last night in a small bed & breakfast on the other side of town.
River Wynde B&B was EXACTLY what my soul needed—a lush and quiet transitional spot with a generous host and a couple psychologist guests. I immediately took a long, non-stop scalding hot shower, then brewed a cup of hot tea, grabbed a homemade muffin and headed for the garden. The last thing I wanted more of was be alone among people, so I walked a couple blocks and grabbed some veggie food to go and made a beeline back to my garden sanctuary. Absence had made my heart grow quite fond of beds—sleep came easy and felt amazing.
Click to watch River Wynde B&B Slideshow
Day 15—A Bike Ride & the Trek Home
A morning bike ride with the Australian of the group was just the closure I needed to this grand adventure. River Wynde had two bikes with our names on them and the owner had a riverside route to take them on. A few hours later and I was back in the Calgary International Airport.
What to Bring on a Hiking Tour of the Canadian Rockies
Note the word “tour” in the title above. You will definitely need more than what’s on this list if you’re going solo!
- A FIT BODY. Thank God I trained for this trip! Hiking with a group of strangers comes with some pressures—the biggest one is keeping up with the group on the trail. THANK GOD I had started hiking in San Diego several months prior to the trip.
- YOUR SOCIAL GAME. Whether you’re in the mood or not, you’ll have little choice but to be social. This includes, but is not limited to, maintaining surface level conversations for excruciatingly long periods of time and laughing even when you don’t think it’s funny.
- LAYERS OF CLOTHING. When on a hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies, you’ll be adding and removing layers from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment just before you wake up in the morning due to constant changes in outside and body temps.
- TWO PAIRS OF QUALITY HIKING SHOES. Good Shoes + Shoe Rotation = Blister Prevention. I was thrilled with my Hi-Tec hiking boots I got a few months earlier. Ten hikes and I never got a single blister.
- PADDED HIKING SOCKS. Oh, what a difference some extra yarn makes. I highly recommend MIRAMU Multi-Performance Hiking Crew Socks, both for their quality and price.
- BLISTER PLASTERS. Consider these insurance. My daughter, who was plagued by blisters on her recent 500 mile stroll on the Camino de Santiago, got turned onto Compeed Blister Relief Plasters by the pharmacies who sold them like hotcakes to a constant stream of pilgrims.
- DOWN JACKET. A MUST. Yes, even in summer. In Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks, the early mornings and late nights were chilly and the guides encouraged us to use it as a foot warmer inside our sleeping bag to keep us extra warm.
- WARM PANTS. My SingBring fleece hiking pants were THE BEST to climb into after a lukewarm shower on those chilly nights.
- (2) WARM SWEATSHIRTS. My Patagonia “Better Sweater” was one of the most used and appreciated items I packed.
- WATERPROOF WINDBREAKER. Lightweight enough to fit in your day pack, but effective enough to keep you warm and dry on top of those blustery mountains!
- TWO HATS. One for shade and one for warmth.
- DOWN SLEEPING BAG. The warmer, the better. Those who brought synthetic ones were desperate customers at the (overpriced) mountain supply shops.
- COMFY TRAVEL PILLOW. My magical Samsonite Magic 2 in 1 travel pillow did not disappoint.
- EXTRA SLEEPING PAD. I gambled and won on this one. Twelve nights is a LONG time to be sleeping on the 1″ inch pad provided by the tour company. I picked one up at Costco and crammed it in my largest suitcase. The math was beautiful—1″ (theirs) + 1.25″ (mine) = 2.25″ of 50 year old body deserved).
- DAY PACK WITH WATER BLADDER. A water bottle will NOT cut it.
- HEAD LAMP (AND EXTRA BATTERIES). Unless you come equipped with night vision, you’ll be crippled without one.
- 1-2 BOOKS. Or something else to keep you occupied in the gap between bedtime and sleep.
- HEALTHY SNACKS. If you want to eat a snack when you want to eat a snack, definitely bring your own. Don’t count on finding quality stuff in a city you don’t know—b Buy them ahead of time and bring them with you! I was THRILLED with the mix of packable single serving treats I brought with me—including grassfed beefsticks, chia shots, almond butter snack packs, Oloves, and oatmeal fruit squeezes.
- REAL BUG SPRAY. Canadian mosquitos (or “mozzies” as the British call them) scoff at herbs. Surrender to the Deet.
- SUNSCREEN. Remember, the higher the elevation, the closer you are to the sun. Natural sunscreen WORKS—my favorite is Blue Lizard!
- FLIP FLOPS. Trust me…you do NOT want the skin of your feet touching the NY campground shower.
- SWIMSUIT. But, only if you’re cool with glacial water.
- POLARIZED SUNGLASSES. Clearly stating the obvious here, but make sure it’s on your list (and check it twice)!
- CAMERA (WITH 2-3 BATTERIES & CHARGER). Unless you’re hiking alone AND you’re a glutton for punishment, leave the giant lenses and tripod at home. If you’re in a group, trust me—you won’t have time for anything other than auto or program mode (and barely even that).
- TRAVEL ADAPTER. Only if you’re not American.
- QUICK DRY TOWEL. And it still won’t dry quick.
- HIKING POLES. 10 out of 13 people in my group swore that these saved them from muscle soreness and at least one fall. It’s either poles or photos for me—guess which one wins? Word has it, the Nordic poles help you burn the most calories for those who are counting.
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If you’re going on a hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies, leave this stuff at home:
- YOUR FREE WILL. Being part of a group means you will have very little say in your activities during the tour. Feels a lot like high school.
- TOO MUCH LUGGAGE. If you’re told to limit your luggage, limit your luggage. Packing light is not only a requirement of limited space, but a favor to yourself during hotel and campground transfers.
- HAMMOCK. There are not enough hours in the day and, most likely, not enough trees at your campsites.
- CHAIR. You’ll need one, but they’ll provide one.
- TRAVEL ADAPTER. Only if you’re from the U.S.!
My Review of Grand American Adventures Canadian Rockies and Wilderness Walk
I chose Grand American Adventures for my hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies because it had one of the most thorough itineraries for the best price. With little exception, I was extremely happy with the itinerary. (If I would have asked more questions, I could have prevented a couple disappointments.)
The booking and pre-departure processes were seamless. Once you leave the hotel and head for the Rockies, your fate is in the hands of your tour guides—and our group couldn’t have been more fortunate. Marie and Andrew were experienced, professional, and passionate about what they do—and they had the daily process down to a science. They were the perfect combo of friendly and firm when communicating the expectations of the group and the rules of the trail. Being a married couple, I think they were more reluctant to split up the group according to ability and desire—but, with our group, that only impacted the last two hikes.
As I mentioned, this wander was a personal experiment—to see if I could survive, and even enjoy, a group tour. While I concluded that even small groups travel is not for me, any challenges I encountered were due to my own desires (and personality) and not anything specific to the Canadian Rockies Walking and Wilderness Walk excursion, Grand American Adventures, or Marie and Andrew. (If you want the real juice, read my Travel Therapy session below!) I’m grateful for the awesome experience I had and am so excited to return to my favorite trails with my daughter and/or boyfriend.
If you are an independent soul who reenergizes in solitude and can’t fathom going on a tour, you CAN go hiking in the Canadian Rockies on your own. Just follow the itinerary in this blog! However, due to the very real danger posed by bears, I would find a couple of like-minded wanderers to join you—and place them strategically (one in front of you and one in back).
Now, here’s my very personal inner scoop on my experience on my hiking tour of the Canadian Rockies with 12 strangers…